Wherein I con­tinue to flog the mer­its of movies made well before I was con­ceived in favor of the tripe pro­duced by Hollywood today…

Sorcerers, croc­o­diles, ethnically-​​inappropriate mush­rooms and over­heated dinosaurs are just some of the things to be seen in Fantasia, a car­toon that’s never really found a niche.

Disney couldn’t really have been blamed for the com­mer­cial fail­ure of the film. At the time it was pro­duced, no one was really sure just yet what the demo­graph­ics were for ani­ma­tion. Snow White had been quite pop­u­lar, obvi­ously with chil­dren; but adults were able to enjoy it as well, despite Walt’s appar­ent inabil­ity to prop­erly plu­ral­ize dwarf.

Fantasia, how­ever, wasn’t really made for chil­dren, and that might be one rea­son it’s been largely mis­un­der­stood and mostly unwatched. That’s really rather sad; Fantasia is eas­ily one of the ten best movies ever made in the United States.

I’d like to hit some of the ways this movie has been more or less con­sis­tently mis­mar­keted before I go into why I believe it’s such a gem. When you think of Fantasia, odds are pretty good you remem­ber a mouse wear­ing a wizard’s cap; or hip­pos and crocs danc­ing a bal­let; or Coolie-​​style sapro­phytes wrig­gling and dancing.

Right?

That’s why Fantasia has always missed the mark. Those are the cutesy, pop­ulist aww-​​gee-​​whiz scenes, the scenes that flatly don’t to the movie jus­tice. If you Google the movie all you get is page after page of that freak­ish anthro­po­mor­phic rat, with the occa­sional ’shroom or cen­taur thrown in as a dis­trac­tion. And that is not, not, not what the movie is about.

Really, Fantasia is not about any­thing. It’s more like a series of music videos linked into a movie, music videos done by stun­ningly tal­ented crafts­peo­ple and set to clas­si­cal music. But rather than express the film as a con­cep­tual art piece, or as a feast for the eyes and ears with occa­sional — and rather brief — for­ays into Disneyesque juve­na­lia, it seemed Walt’s mar­ket­ing peo­ple in 1940 had as hard a time pigeon­hol­ing the film as their con­tem­po­raries. Push Mickey, they seem to believe. Push Mickey and don’t worry about the details.*

But details are really at the heart of Fantasia. As a con­crete exam­ple, take a look at the piece the movie begins with: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, orches­tral form. There’s no story to it, no plot. Instead the ani­ma­tors cre­ated motion sequences that, to them, rep­re­sented the sounds the music was making.

You don’t have to go far­ther than that to decide if you’re going to enjoy the movie or not. If you find your­self more or less rooted to the spot in fas­ci­na­tion, rest assured that the film will sat­isfy you (though you might find some of the nar­ra­tive parts, par­tic­u­larly the much-​​overplayed Sorcerer’s Apprentice piece, a bit dull). If the Bach makes you want to pass out, pick a dif­fer­ent film.

From the per­spec­tive alone of mar­ket­ing, Fantasia would seem a bit of a dis­as­ter, then. There’s no real demo­graphic of any size to tar­get. But from a cre­ative and tech­ni­cal point of view, Fantasia was groundbreaking.

To begin with, ani­ma­tors were let loose, allowed to put onscreen, more or less intact, the visions they had on lis­ten­ing to music. The next time that would hap­pen would be more than twenty years later in the “psy­che­delic” phase of the 1960s. But beyond the cre­ative free­dom there came tech­ni­cal progress that, until the release of Toy Story, was not improved upon — because there was no way to improve on it.

The mul­ti­plane cam­era was one of the most impor­tant inven­tions of the art of ani­ma­tion; with it, focus could be pulled through a scene, giv­ing flat two-​​dmensional draw­ings a gen­uine sense of depth and res­o­nance. That alone was a mas­sive step for­ward, but Disney used a one-​​up model with a vengeance in Fantasia, a seven-​​layer mul­ti­plane rig that was the ani­ma­tion equiv­a­lent of the cli­mac­tic space bat­tle scene from Return of the Jedi, wherein sev­eral hun­dred model effects ele­ments were com­bined to pro­duce a feel­ing of dense dog­fight­ing — the dif­fer­ence being that Disney’s effect rig was used over and over again through­out the film, not just in one five-​​second-​​long sequence.

This, along with the use of mul­ti­chan­nel stereo sound, allowed audi­ences to become immersed not just in the visu­als, but in the audio of the film. And the tech­niques devel­oped and explored in Fantasia remained high-​​water marks in the art of ani­ma­tion, not to be out­done until computer-​​generated ani­ma­tion hit the scene more than five decades after Disney’s release.

Beyond this is the sense of craft that comes from almost every frame of the movie. The sec­ond piece, ani­mated to The Nutcracker Suite, fea­tures ethereally-​​beautiful fairies coast­ing along in gowns that glow lumi­nously from within, and this effect was acheived by painstak­ing and care­ful air­brush­ing of hun­dreds of indi­vid­ual ani­ma­tion cels. Even the bla­tantly Catholic Night on Bald Mountain is made tol­er­a­ble to my atheist’s eyes by the sim­ple evoca­tive power of the imagery.

This movie has no sto­ry­line to speak of; it doesn’t include hip one-​​liners or clever sound bites; it con­tains pre­cisely zero high-​​end computer-​​generated effects and doesn’t rely upon sac­cha­rine hack­neyed plots. But com­pared to insipid prod­ucts such as Over the Hedge, Fantasia is very much in a class all its own. Don’t get this one to show the kids — get it as a treat for yourself.

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* Perhaps this could be more hereti­cally expressed as Mickey helps those who help them­selves.

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